Game Description: All of the legendary action and adrenaline of the famed Contra series comes to the PlayStation 2 with Contra: Shattered Soldier. Massive, screen-filling boss characters, a Contra series staple, do everything they can to keep players from proceeding through the multiple action-packed missions, while environmental threats such as swarms of bugs, aggressive enemies and alien encounters keep players on their toes.
Nothing in life ever stays the same. If you've ever had a good friend that you've lost contact with, it can be a mixed experience to meet them again after a long separation. On the one hand, there's nothing like seeing a familiar face that's been missing from your life. On the other hand, you might find it difficult to have the same kind of relationship you once had after years have passed. If you can reconnect on a significant level and find something to build on, then your fond memories can serve as a strong foundation for the future. If you come together only to find that you've gone very separate ways, it might be better to simply cherish your shared past and move on.
Much like meeting that long lost friend, playing the recent reincarnation of Konami's legendary Contra franchise has been a similarly bittersweet experience. Make no mistake, its incredibly gratifying to see one of videogames greatest action series (quite literally) restored to its former glory. After being horribly distorted and dragged through the gutter not once, but twice by two craptastic farmed-out PlayStation sequels, I thought my old shootin' partner was gone for good. However, its back and Konami has played it extremely safe by returning to its roots and not taking many risks with the formula, for better or worse. Its understandable, but also disappointing.
For those who havent ever experienced the frenzied glory of Contra on the NES, SNES or Genesis, its basically a side-scrolling twitch action game with lots of shooting, jumping and one-hit deaths. In Shattered Soldier there are two characters to pick from, a male and a female, although both are identical in every way except appearance. Each comes equipped with three weapons: a machine gun, flamethrower and a grenade lobber. All three are capable of a "charged-up" method of fire as well. Unlike earlier games, these weapons cannot be lost and players are free to cycle through them at any time. The downside to this system is that there are no other weapons to collect and no upgrades to acquire.
There are four levels at the outset that can be tackled by either one or two players in any order. Once clearing these, a fifth level opens up. If players are on the Normal difficulty and have achieved a sufficient ranking in these five levels, there are two more that can be unlocked along with corresponding endings.
After sitting down and spending time with Contra: Shattered Soldier, its clear to see that older gamers are the ones who will likely enjoy it the most. The graphics are solidly rendered in 3D, but they're not anything that will impress or engage people more accustomed to the visual flash prevalent on today's powerful hardware. The gameplay itself is the real draw here, and its taken directly out of the late 80s with an emphasis on memorizing patterns of enemy fire in order to remain alive. Such tactics are practically the definition of "old-school." While there are certain advantages in switching between weapons, the key element necessary for staying alive is to know when and where a boss will strike next.
This "Try, Die, Repeat" type of structure is incredibly hard to deal with in the beginning because of the insane amount of times the learning process will reduce you to fleshy slag. Once you learn the patterns, the difficulty of the game comes down to a somewhat manageable level. Its all about knowing whats coming up next. In fact, after some serious frustration at a few key points, I was able to finish the game the first time after only three hours. After a few more tries, I found that the entire game could be completed from start to finish in under one hour. It took a while for my long-unused Contra brain cells to fire back up, but the old reflexes were still there.
Another reason I think Shattered Soldier will have a stronger connection with old-timers is that the game is chock-full of nods, references and even complete sequences taken from the older games, but this was both good and bad.
There's a not-so-fine line between being an homage and being an amalgamation of old content, and I think that this line was crossed. Nearly everything that Contra was known for over the course of the series has been included here, whether it makes sense or not. Things like suddenly finding yourself snowboarding down a hillside or hanging onto a missile screaming through the skies may leave newcomers scratching their heads, but most of these elements are unforgettable moments if you've seen them before. However, rather than being excited or thrilled, I found myself a little disappointed that Konami chose to recycle so much from the past and cobble it into the ill-fitting mishmash seen here. I'm a huge fan of references and giving little tips of the hat, but there's such a large amount of reused material that it felt like I'd already "been there, done that" only minutes after starting level one.
In fact, thats really the feeling I had about the entire game in general. Quite unlike other successful old-school resurrections such as SpyHunter or Defender, Contra: Shattered Soldier seems content to merely recap its old formula without changing much of anything, despite the radically different audience playing today's modern consoles. That's not to say that the gameplay doesn't hold up, but compared to the greater depth and creativity displayed re-imagining other classic titles, its pretty obvious that Contra: Shattered Soldier is little more than a gussied-up fossil. For an older gamer like me, I can appreciate it for what it is, but nostalgia can only carry a disc so far. I've already played the source games and have fond memories of them, but I don't need to relive them at $50 a pop with so much incredible competition on shelves already.
Similar to what Konami did with Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night, I'd like to see Contra taken to the next level while retaining its identity. Keep the core elements and build a next-generation structure around it, in other words. Give me something besides a carbon copy of action that has already been done, and done to perfection on older systems. As it is, it strikes me as one of those old friends who just hasn't done much with themselves since high school; you've had some good times together, but you just don't have much to say to each other once you're done reminiscing.
I've noticed a trend in both my and Brad's reviews, something I'd characterize as a "glass half-full versus glass half-empty" pattern. If you disregard the scores and go by the reviews themselves, our thoughts on games are often similar, the only difference being that one of us likes or dislikes a game for or in spite of the qualities we both agree it has. That's been the case more than a few times on this site. For example, we both agreed that Headhunter was a decent game; I just had to be honest in admitting that I didn't enjoy it enough to recommend it. In the case of Contra: Shattered Soldier, it looks like the reverse is true. This time I get to be the "glass half-full" guy. In spite of the fact that I agree with nearly all of Brad's observations on the game, I have to admit that I enjoyed it a lot more than he did.
I admit that Contra: Shattered Soldier is in many ways a "greatest hits" collection of past Contra moments. It's true that most the levels are directly lifted from earlier games of the series—the driving and flying levels in particular. The plot, while virtually non-existent, is basically identical to the past games, and the gameplay has gone through no changes whatsoever, save the fact that all the weapons are "fixed" to the player and not collected throughout the level. I agree, all this is true. It's exactly what the other Contras were. It's 2D gameplay with 3D graphics, and there's nothing to do except run around, shoot stuff, die, try again, finish the level, and repeat until there are no more levels.
Why, then, did I enjoy it so much?
The answers are a little subtler, and here's where some of my disagreements with Brad creep up. Brad complained that Shattered Soldier doesn't shake up the formula like other updates of 2D actions games have, Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night being the most obvious example. While I do sympathize with Brad's assertion that he would have liked to see more innovation in the basic format of simply marching through levels in a linear fashion, I think there are other aspects that balance out this drawback. Symphony Of The Night may have been wonderfully non-linear and pregnant with gameplay possibilities that Shattered Soldier doesn't even try for, but the trade-off is that Contra is far superior in terms of providing a compelling challenge. With almost a decade to perfect things, Konami has taken the formula and polished into a near-perfect experience of nail-biting intensity. Contra: Shattered Soldier is actually a game that rewards strategy and provides a unique sense of accomplishment when a level is mastered. The player must know every enemy, every jump, every beat of the level by the time it's done. In the end, it feels more like performing a dance than blindly shooting everything in sight.
This brings up another issue I have with Brad's critique. Contra: Shattered Soldier actually has a lot more in common with other types of games than its own predecessors. One game I couldn't stop thinking of while playing this game was Squaresoft's Einhander, one of the better side-scrolling shooters ever made in my opinion. People who remember that game's uniquely refined difficulty curve and stylish 2D/3D aesthetic would no doubt find Contra: Shattered Solider an almost identical experience. Since I've been waiting for a sequel to Einhander for years, I was quite happy that Contra: Shattered Soldier managed to uphold its legacy in style.
And it's not just the aesthetics and the challenge. I did sort of get a kick out of the stupid plot. For people who remember the original Contra on NES it's kinda funny to see the designers try to make something interesting out of it. Of course, they end up with utterly silliness, but in a game where the story isn't even pretending to be important a little fan service is always nice.
Like I said, I don't think Brad is "wrong" about Contra: Shattered Soldier at all. It's just about everything he says it is. I suppose it's up to the player to decide whether that's interesting or not. Speaking for myself, I found it very interesting, and I was happy to help myself to even a glass half full of what this game had to offer.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Animated Blood, Violence
Parents shouldn't be too concerned about any risqué content. There are a few gooshy-looking aliens and theres a lot of gunplay, but nothings really too explicit or disgusting. The thing you should be wary of is the game's difficulty. It's far too demanding for children and will lead to instant frustration.
Action gamers will find an ego-crushing amount of action here, although the disc is quite short once you master the patterns of avoiding enemy fire. Up until that point, it can be extremely tough, and the Normal mode is a bear to finish due to the chintzy amount of lives and continues.
Contra fans will want to check Shattered Soldier out. It definitely lives up to the standards set by its progenitors and will feel like a real trip down memory lane. As long as you don't expect much besides what Contra has already achieved in the past, you won't be let down. I have a hard time recommending it at the full retail price of $50, though.
Hearing Impaired gamers will have no problems. There is full text accompanying all dialogue and there are no significant auditory cues.